There is a sneak in me left over from childhood.
I was the one who quietly picked up the phone to listen in. I found a way to walk up our old wooden steps without making them squeak. I listened to adults talk at parties and heard things I shouldn’t have. I crawled out my bedroom window and sat on the roof, in secret.
Somewhere along the line, it must have occurred to me that rules had give. They had weak spots, places to push. Except for church. Church had no give, and neither did napkin on lap, kindness or sisterly love.
But the world really opened up when I realized that, for some members of my extended family, rule breaking was a given. A delight! Great Aunt Mary would sigh through her lips as if she was turning us down, but she never did.
“Go ahead,” she would say, “you can shake the soda cans/use the all sheets in the linen closet/hold onto the wheel while I drive.”
Just don’t tell your mother or climb trees, we heard.
She came to live with us and mopped the kitchen floor every night. When our parents joined a local theater group, we waved goodbye at the front door and she made sure we didn’t escape the house. She slept in tight rollers that pressed against her head, and she liked to sleep in on Saturdays.
“Are you awake?” I would whisper in her ear.
“Count to 200,” she would whisper back from her pillow.
But this Saturday was my sister’s First Communion, and since our father was stirring the hollandaise and our mother was pulling down serving dishes and finding white tights and picking up after the dog, they needed Great Aunt Mary to drive to the store to get the sheet cake for the Communion Party. We had to be at church in an hour. People were coming.
Great Aunt Mary’s white Granada was in the shop (a truck had dumped cement on it), so we climbed in to the blue Aerostar.
It was quiet in the backseat as Great Aunt Mary saw the Grand Union parking lot.
“Jesus and the saints!” she said.
We found a spot in front after praying to St. Anthony and threaded our way through the crowd to find the sheet cake. My sister held on to the back of my shirt and I suspect my other sister held onto hers.
“Stay with me girls,” said Great Aunt Mary over the bedlam.
I couldn’t see much. Suddenly we were turned around and heading toward the door.
In the parking lot, Great Aunt Mary was holding the sheet cake in her two hands.
“Go through my bag and get the keys,” she said to me. “Make it quick. We’ll come back later and pay. Your mother will kill me if we’re late.”
That was when the police cars came, making hooting noises. There were three.
Lights were swirling, dragging their colors across the Aerostar and my little sisters.
I don’t have much more of the story. What remains is a pellet of shame and a need to make it better.
We were told to get in to the Aerostar. The presence of the police cars kept us quiet. We pressed to the window and watched the policeman hold the Happy First Communion sheet cake in one hand. Great Aunt Mary’s hands were in front of her like she was a little girl.
I wasn’t trying to steal it, she said. I had to get to church for a Communion. I’m a Catholic woman. I was going to come back later.
And she would have.
But the policeman with the sheet cake walked her back in to pay. The other policemen turned to the Aerostar and looked at us.